Monday, October 17, 2011

Crowdsourcing: Confronting the Deception

Independent creatives continue to bemoan the effect of crowdsourcing on our ability to make a living, and the main driver seems to be a toxic confluence of globalization and recession. I have recently concluded that a big chunk of the persistence of crowdsourcing (CS) rests on the Deception of Equal Value. Clients unconsciously assume that crowdsourced "design" is equal in value to the services of experienced professionals, both in the design’s quality and in its ability to do the job for clients, i.e., sell their stuff.
The CS sites encourage this deception with their slick come-ons, and unless we proactively take this bull by the horns, clients will remain in the dark and keep buying CS crap. Some of the sites go so far as to imply that professional designers are ripping off the business community. We ignore this at our peril. Letting CS sites control the messaging around design is a huge mistake.
We have to reclaim control of this communications lapse. Just as some have no clue about the difference between a certified  accountant and H&R Block, many businesses have no idea what it takes to create a marcom piece that attracts and converts successfully. Not only do they assume that $100 graphic doodads are equal in value to professional, strategic designs, they assume that those doodads will deliver the same results. If we professionals don't tell them the difference, how will they know?
And herein lies an opportunity:  many of us have clients who provide services. They, too, are being hit by their own versions of crowdsourcing. The Deception of Equal Value is a challenge to all professional service providers. Ask your lawyer how she feels about online DIY contracts. Ask your doctor how he likes it when patients self-diagnose with WebMD. Globalization and CS has come to all the professions, like it or not, and it is having the effect of commoditizing a lot of previously specialized work. Creatives can lead the way in demonstrating how to deal with this.
So it’s up to us to communicate the meaning of true value, to and for our clients. It can feel tedious, but explaining gets easier the more you do it. As many have pointed out, this also means that we have to sell ideas and not just products. If we demonstrate our own value case, it shows we can make the same case for our clients.
[Caution: Sounding even a little annoyed at having to explain will be noticed on some level by your client and will not help make your point.]
Of course, there will always be people who shop solely on price. They will be with us whether the economy is bad or thriving. I continue to believe that there are enough clients who rank value over price that we can all survive. But it will take effort on our part to find them, connect with them and demonstrate our long-term worth beyond the project level.


  1. This is a problem that can be fixed. For a long time, design itself had a difficult time proving it actually had an ROI. That is now changing. Businesses have seen first hand the effect of design on ROI through companies like Apple and IDEO and many, many other design firms. The difference between CS and freelance work by professionals, as you pointed out, is an education problem. Sell these values to your clients, don't just assume they know why you are better and offer better services. Show that working with you will enhance their Return on Investment. Money talks.

  2. This is common practice, but warrants repeating. As designers we have to prove value to clients where it means the most to them. Clients are looking for strategic thinkers that understand their business and have their success (client) as priority. It starts by asking the right questions that go beyond look and feel. The CS sites can't go beyond making the pretty identity, but professionals can be strategic partners with our clients and show value by offering multi-disciplinary solutions to their businesses. It requires asking difficult questions about their business, their customers and their employees. As designers we must understand their sales process and recognize the obstacles in building lasting relationships with their customers. Understand the problems and use our creative intuition to prove value to the client.

  3. Thank you Laurel :) Well said! I am Jennifer.

  4. Yesterday I had a choice to do something. Our little network community is sponsoring talks about networking, getting info about social media etc. Our group consists of freelancers of different kind. Next talk was about publishing own books. While I was volunteering to do the event marketing, I read the copy that suggested everything can be done for a pittance. I stopped working and called the organizer to find out more about the person's integrity. Least thing I want to support with my volunteer work is someone who brags in public about crowdsourcing his low quality and taste product and teaches others how to do so. As designers we should let the public know that crowdsourcing is ethically not acceptable.

  5. Excellent piece. Terrific analogies with WebMD and LegalZoom. The key is that design actually be based upon a strategy specific to the client. If there's no strategy, the discussion devolves into opinions. Strategy is the foundation of value.

  6. I guess I have to go against the grain here... I don't view Crowd Sourcing as a threat to freelancer/professional design work. period. full stop.

    Crowd sourcing's intent is to engage the consumer and make them feel a part of a brand or a product launch. To create an invested consumer. I do believe marketers and all involved are smart enough to realize they will not get the same ROI as professional design but maybe to your point its worth reiterating. And again I don't really think this is the point of the exercise.

    If we assume that they don't realize this WE are acting in the same short-sighted fashion as those who say consumers are unintelligent and insist on dumbing things down...

    I view our role as providing design inspiration and design support on the crowd-source call for action so as to inspire others to create. Good design is not and never will be threatened by mediocrity.

    Don't fear change... embrace it!

  7. Who says the talents in the crowd aren't professional? Who says there isn't strategy? Don't confuse crowd-sourcing with user-generated, which seems to be the thrust of at least part of this dialogue. But even users are capable of taste and in a culture at least partially shaped by advertising, users are even capable of being strategic!

    The issue of price wouldn't necessarily be part of the dialogue either if agencies hadn't been over-charging for their services for ages, as well, pushing brands/clients to look for real value, rather than inflated value ... which is probably more prevalent than deflated value.

    Crowd-sourcing also provides opportunities to talented, experienced professionals they might not otherwise ever get.

    Three cheers to the commenter who says design is becoming appreciated. Thanks in large part to brands such as Apple and Target and even now Walmart. (See recent issue of FastCompany.)

    One last note: There probably needs to be a definition of terms we all agree to prior to entering a debate.

  8. @ Charlie and Guy – Sounds like we’re all singing off the same sheet. I believe that consistent and constant client education will turn the tide, one client at a time.

    @Anonymous #2 – Strictly speaking, crowdsourcing design is not unethical. You still get what you pay for, and no one is holding a gun to your head. In a free country, people can spend their money as they choose. Where the slope gets slippery for me is when CS presents itself as equal in value to professional custom design. It is theoretically possible that a $100 graphic will become wildly successful as a business’s brand, just as it is theoretically possible that my kid will grow up to be President. But to imply that it’s probable is a BIG stretch – enough that I consider the implication to be deceptive. I would suggest that you use the situation you described as a teaching moment. People are not born to knowledge, and if we don’t tell them, they won’t know. They will not learn anything from ranting or complaining.

    @ Jeff – Thanks! I went to your site and it is evident that you are doing a GREAT job of explaining the value and ROI of design. “Strategy is the foundation of value” is the most succinct/elegant way I’ve heard it expressed thus far – hope you don’t mind if I borrow.

    @ Anonymous #3 – There are many ways to engage the consumer without passing off shoddy work as equal in value to excellent work. The intent of crowdsourcing design sites (separate from the general practice of CS) is to make money with as little effort as possible. Your assertion that it “is to engage the consumer and make them feel a part of a brand or a product launch” is naïve. Too many of us have had to contend with chirpy clients who think that having a logo contest will engage their audience. Can you imagine Apple deciding to crowdsource one of their product logos? And good design can be threatened by many things, chief among them ignorance. That is why ongoing client education is so vital.

    @ SWood – If by professional you mean getting paid, you’re right in that sense, at least for those whose projects “win.” But just because a user is capable of taste doesn’t mean he/she has the skills and education to express it. I know how I want my hair cut, but I can’t do it myself. I know a well-prepared meal when I eat one, but I am no chef. You may have a point about agencies - I have not worked for one as an adult, so I will have to take your word on that. As for crowdsourcing providing “opportunities to talented, experienced professionals they might not otherwise ever get,” please. The vast majority require you to submit work along with dozens of other designers on the chance that the bidder will pick yours. Working with almost no hope of getting paid is not my idea of a great professional opportunity. And to your point about Apple and Target: yes, they have elevated the place of design in our culture. But they didn’t do it with crowdsourcing.

  9. Crowd sourcing in nothing more than work being done on spec with the hope that a client will pick the best concept in the end. As for those designers who do not get picked, they have sent a clear message that their time is of no perceived value. This in turn sends a message to the business world that design is of no perceived value, but rather a cheap and easy commodity.

    Professional graphic design is about creating strategic solutions to specific problems, not cliché concepts based on a short brief that has little or no content relevant to the client’s business. The value of design lays in the ideas and solutions generated to solve specific problems.

    Approaches to problems need to be thoroughly researched and evaluated before a tangible concept can be born. Without a comprehensive understanding of the business or the content, any design presented at that point is mere decoration, being convenient stand-ins for real ideas and genuine skill. Presenting real ideas and well thought out concepts is what the true professional gets paid for.

    I have written a post on CINQ's blog that sends a clear message to our clients, and potential clients, that what we do as designers is of value and what we are doing to keep that perception of worth intact.

    The blog post can be found here:

  10. Hi Steph -

    Thanks for stopping by and adding your input! I read the post on your blog, and I think you are doing the design profession a great service in stating your principled stand on this issue. BTW, "cinq" is French for five, so sounds like you need to add two more people ;-).

  11. I wrote about crowdsourcing at

    The fundamental problem with crowdsourcing is that the client becomes the judge of a design contest, a role they typically have no professional background for.

    Clients are at fault for believing that "designers are people who build stuff."

    Designers are at fault for not presenting themselves as professional aesthetic decision makers.

    At the end of the day, excellent work is done for excellent clients. All the clients who think crowdsourcing is the way to go are best off not calling me anyway.

    "Well…what can I get for $500?"

    "A dial tone."

  12. Dave, you're hilarious! My favorite quote from your link above: "As with dentistry, there’s much to be said for working with a professional." And your summation of the basic problem (and your dial tone response) is right on as well. Thanks for commenting!

  13. I had some experience with this last year. I was working as Creative Director of a marketing group creating a logo that would rebrand our local opera to a lyric theatre company. After the process was started and we'd shown them some ideas, the owner of our company decided to use a logo company overseas to "save us time" when the committee wasn't quite agreeing on a direction for the new identity.

    After several rounds of oversea designs, the committee and our group reworking the off shore submissions - the opera chose one of our designs and were very pleased.

    The combination of distance, not hearing the conversations with the opera plus not living in the same community and being able to been seen face-to-face made the overseas gang approach non-competitive. But not after some internal conflict, wasted time and damaged relationships.

  14. Hi Kevin -
    Sounds like it was an ordeal, but at least you kept the project. I hope you got compensated for all your time, and that the relationships were not damaged beyond repair. Is it possible to use this experience as a response/example if one of your clients wants to go the same route in the future? "Yes, this came up with another one of our clients and here's what happened . . ."

  15. Sorry to be finding this so late. I applaud the people who believe in strategy as a key to great design. That's design that can be measured to proved its value/ROI.

    I advocate for designers to work this way, and to develop their strategy as a deliverable, a document. That makes the strategy visible to the client (not spoken about and never seen). It means doing research. (The scope is scalable, but you must do at least some research upon which to develop your strategies.) It means developing strategies for the best ways that design can solve the client's problem (the best deliverables), the key messaging platform and the visual attributes. There must be rationales for the recommendations. And, metrics for how to evaluate the work after it's deployed should be the last piece of the strategy. All of this work needs to be done prior to any creative development.

    When you work this way -- review your findings, develop strategies and devise metrics -- and get your client's sign-off, everyone is on the same page and is highly engaged in the process. Nobody can confuse work like this with what happens with crowdsourcing.

    Organizations that understand that this approach has value, and is measurable, will not be confused. They will understand that they are making an investment that will have a return.

    It's up to designers to work this way and communicate the value. I'm working to get people to do this work better and share their best practices and successes. I hope more designers make this approach standard practice.